What happens to a person who dies without ever hearing of Jesus?
Some ask, “Will God judge and send people to hell if they have never heard of Jesus?” What about tribal people living in the depths of a jungle, “Will they be punished too?” So, the main issue arises, “Will God condemn people to hell for not believing in someone they have never heard of?” We will examine this issue in detail and provide the answer from scripture.
After physical death, there are two judgments.
First, we must examine what happens after death and what does the Bible teach about that matter. As the saying goes, “only two things are for certain, death and taxes.” The Bible says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). This means that a person dies once “physically” and then faces a judgment. The Bible defines two groups of people, believers, and unbelievers. Both will face judgment after they die physically. Believers are judged for their good works while alive, not for sins committed. They acquire rewards for their works [see the Judgment Seat of Christ], “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). Believers receive crowns for faithfully serving God (cf. Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 9:4-27; 2 Timothy 2:5, 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10). This judgment of actions is for believers only.
What about unbelievers? A just God requires righteousness, and He gives wrath to the unrighteous (cf. Romans 1:18; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6). Unbelievers will face their judgment at the “Great White Throne Judgment” (e.g., Revelation 20:11-15). The “book of life” contains the names of those who have received eternal life (e.g., Revelation 20:12). If one’s name is not in it, they will be thrown into the lake of fire as punishment (e.g., Revelation 20:15).
What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus?
People have been given a choice (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:19). The gospel is preached and received or rejected through “Spiritual Revelation” (e.g., Matthew 16:17). But what of those who have never been given this choice because they have never heard the gospel message? The apostle Paul poses this question in Romans, “But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them” (Romans 10:14 NLT)?
The answer? “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1). “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. Forever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities; his eternal power and divine nature. So, they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:19-20). The world is given “General Revelation” that God exists through His creation (e.g., the cosmological argument). Also, there is the revelation through one’s own conscience (e.g., the moral argument). God has put a sense of eternity in people’s minds, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future (Ecclesiastes 3:11). With all mankind, there is a recognition that there is something beyond this life and searching for the truth. The presence of God in us and all around us is evident. The law of God is written in people’s hearts (e.g., their mind). Their conscience and thoughts accuse and convict them (e.g., Romans 2:15).
There is conviction either by spiritual revelation from the gospel and the law or from general revelation from conscience and creation. Also, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of its sin, of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment (John 16:8). Through the work of the Holy Spirit, a person realizes that he is guilty, that God is just, and that all sinners deserve judgment. This is neither merely a guilty conscience due to a sense of morality, nor is it mere knowledge of right and wrong. The word “convict” is a translation of the Greek word elencho, which means “to convince someone of the truth; to reprove; to accuse, refute, or cross-examine a witness.” The Holy Spirit is like a prosecuting attorney exposing evil, accusing evildoers, and convincing people that they need a Savior. This is what the Bible refers to as God “drawing” men to Jesus (e.g., John 6:44).
People claim to reject God’s existence because it is “not scientific” or “because there is no proof.” If God exists, then they are accountable to Him for their actions. If God does not exist, then they can do whatever they want without having to worry about God judging them. People don’t want to be judged. They want to fulfill their natural desires; the sinful nature wants to do evil (Galatians 5:17). However, God does reveal Himself in other ways than the Gospel. God convicts and draws people, so they are without excuse. They will suffer the same judgment and punishment as an unbeliever (e.g., Revelation 20:11-15).